A recent protest of about 50 frustrated ranchers at the Saskatchewan legislature stood out for a couple of reasons.
The first reason was that the ranchers who chartered a bus from northeast communities like Preeceville and Porcupine Plain to make their case directly to the politicians for a $150-a-cow winter maintenance program were certainly sincere.
This is not to say that everyone else who arrives at the steps of Regina's Marble Palace is there for phoney political reasons. But those of us who have hung around the place for a while do get pretty good at figuring out which protests are driven by heartfelt concerns and which have an element of politics. The feeling was that these ranchers were there on their own volition and were sincere in their request for help.
But the second thing one noticed about this protest is how rare of late it's been for the Saskatchewan Party government to encounter any such problems, especially compared with last year.
Again, this is not to suggest that these ranchers did not have a legitimate beef. There's little doubt they have slipped through the cracks and there are others out there equally frustrated by the government's handling of issues like flood relief.
The NDP Opposition rightfully seized upon their case, introducing an emergency motion calling on Ottawa and the province to work together to provide livestock producers with an immediate assistance payment of $150 per head and $75 per head for yearlings. (Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud told the cattlemen that his government would lobby Ottawa for help, but also made it clear that the province was "not looking at any per-head payment.")
The ranchers left the legislature obviously dissatisfied with the response they receive. But why they stood is that they would be among the comparatively few who have an issue with the Sask. Party government right now.
Consider where we were a year ago when the 2009 fall sitting of the legislature was winding down.
At that time, the Sask. Party government was limping home for Christmas after being battered by a mid-term financial update that showed it had overshot its potash revenue projections by $2 billion.
The fallout of that miscalculation was a $1.05-billion deficit for the summary financial statement instead of the surplus that had been predicted in the March budget.
To make up for this loss, rural Saskatchewan residents paid a heavy price. Capital spending to 13 rural nursing homes and hospitals was deferred. Agriculture spending was cut. And health minister Don McMorris was telling us that the long-promised emergency helicopter was no longer in the plans because it just wasn't feasible under the current economic restraints.
Also, it was this time a year ago that we learned the Sask. Party government would not be able to deliver on its education property tax promise and that then finance minister Rod Gantefoer was musing about freezing the municipal operating grant at $167.4 million, a direct contradiction to the Sask. Party's promise that "the equivalent of 100 per cent of one point (roughly, $200 million) of the PST will be provided."
Well, fast-forward one year and we have a much, much better mid-term statement with a surplus on the general revenue fund side. (However, Crown spending is still increasing debt.)
We saw a throne speech this fall that re-instituted the promise for emergency helicopter service and at least a few of those nursing home-hospital projects are now going ahead. We've also heard a firm commitment in this year's mid-term address to make good in the spring budget on both the education property tax promise and the municipal operating grant increase.
More telling, however, is that the grumbling and frustration of last winter has dissipated.
In fact, those protesting the Sask. Party government have become comparatively rare.